Traversing grief on the Camino


The Way (PG). Director: Emilio Estevez. Starring: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez. 121 minutes

It's one of the world's most famous long walks. The Way of St James, the pilgrimage route that extends hundreds of kilometres to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, has been trekked for millennia by religious pilgrims or tourists in search of a scenic adventure.

The Way is actor turned filmmaker Emilio Estevez's empathetic consideration of the Camino and those who walk it in the modern era.

At its heart is a poignant account of bereaved father Tom (portrayed by Estevez's real-life father, Sheen) who makes the trek in honour of his adult son Daniel (Estevez), who died in the early stages of his own pilgrimage during a freak storm. Tom carries Daniel's ashes with him and scatters them along the way.

He shares the journey, reluctantly at first, with an eclectic group, including Joost (Wageningen), a Dutchman of generous girth and generous nature; snide American Sarah (Unger), whose abrasive personality masks numerous hurts; and Jack (Nesbitt), an Irish writer attempting to write a book about the Camino.

All have ostensibly mundane motives for attempting the trek (Joost to lose weight; Sarah to quit smoking) but as the film progresses it becomes clear that each is hopeful, to varying degrees, that the Camino will provide them with something beyond their immediate, material desire.

The Way is a sincere film, if somewhat sentimental. Luscious cinematography is employed to soak up the rustic greens and browns and stone-greys of the stunning locations. Combine these with a string of montages set to contemporary music that look like cheesy outtakes from a credit card commercial, and at times The Way feels decidedly like a tourism video.

Meanwhile the pairing of Sheen and Estevez as on-screen father and son, in a film Estevez wrote and directed, lends a sense of navel gazing and family love-in that taints the film's better achievements. (Indeed the film was inspired by Sheen's own experience walking the Camino with his grandson, Estevez's son, Taylor, in 2003.)

But it is a thoughtful film. In road movies the geography (which here is sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, always inspiring) can usually be read as a metaphor for the internal journey the characters are on. This may reflect the nature of religious pilgrimages too, where pilgrims may seek to wring meaning from each moment. If meaning proves elusive though, the pilgrim might be disillusioned, or embrace empty platitudes in its place.

This proves to be an obstacle for Jack in particular, who, when we first meet him, is ranting about the plethora of metaphor and symbolism that have occurred to him on the trail. He's in search of a fresh angle, but has instead been frustrated by clichés.

His desire could be seen to reflect Estevez's. Certainly both the fictional writer and the real life filmmaker are on the right track. They recognise that what's extraordinary about the Camino lies within the ordinary, notably in the basic humanity of those who journey upon it. Transcendence comes through relationship. Experiences become meaningful because they are shared.

The film is mostly successful in communicating this. Tom is at first staunchly protective of his grief. But as the journey progresses he comes to see that the purpose of opening up is not just to let people in, but also to give of yourself. Sarah's curiosity about his character and motivation, for example, are not motivated merely by nosiness, but by a desire to reveal herself to him in turn; to find common ground in shared pain.

There is no shortage of humanity in The Way. Jack's cynicism about the religious dimensions of pilgrimages has its roots in his hurt and betrayal over the clergy sex abuse scandal within his country. Meanwhile, tellingly, it is Joost, whose stated reason for doing the Camino is the most superficial, who is most deeply affected upon its completion. The capacity for sudden, unbidden wonder may be one of the great gifts of ordinary humanity. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, pilgrims, camino



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Existing comments

Must see film. Thanks Tim.

Pam | 03 May 2012  

'Transcendence comes through relationship. Experiences become meaningful because they are shared.' 'The capacity for sudden, unbidden wonder may be one of the great gifts of ordinary humanity.' What beautiful phrases; words that inspire hope and evoke affirmation. I love this piece. Thank you for putting insight, grace and 'yourself' into your writing. I'm inclined to go catch this film now.

Barry G | 03 May 2012  

Tim, another very engaging review. Thanks for all the others before this one too. You do them very well.

Joe Castley | 03 May 2012  

My parents walked the Camino a number of years ago, in their early 60s. Last year, while my father was dying, yet didn't know it yet, they watched this film in my living room. We wept, it was so beautiful, and I think because it touched an intense and profound suffering and final life journey that had already begun - and hooked them back into that journey along The Way that moved them so much. Well worth taking the time to watch.

Toluana | 03 May 2012  

Thank you Tim for giving me a little more focus on this film that I plan to see tomorrow. As Barry has said you've shared your own spirit and exposed the capacity of the film to show us the wealth of 'ordinary humanity'. I look forward to experiencing some of this when I walk part of 'The Way' in October.

Anne | 03 May 2012  

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